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Performance art

The term Performance art is extraordinarily open-ended. Since the late 1970s, it has emerged as the most popular name for art activities that are presented before a live audience and that encompass elements of music, dance, poetry, theater, and video. The term is also retroactively applied to earlier live-art forms—such as Body art, Happenings, Actions, and some Fluxus and feminist art activities. This diffusion in meaning has made the term far less precise and useful.

Starting in the late 1960s, many artists wanted to communicate more directly with viewers than painting or sculpture allowed, and their ways of doing so were inspired by a variety of visual art sources. These ranged from early-twentieth-century Dada events (composer John Cage helped spread the word about them in postwar New York) to Jackson Pollock’s painting for a film camera in 1950. Until the late 1970s, artists specifically rejected the term performance for its theatrical implications.

The type of Performance art that began in the late 1960s was primarily a Conceptual activity, and such events bore little resemblance to theater or dance. Instead, they took place in galleries or outdoor sites, lasted anywhere from a few minutes to a few days, and were rarely intended to be repeated. A few examples suggest the variety of approaches to performance during this era. Starting in 1969, the British duo Gilbert and George dubbed themselves “living sculpture” and appeared as robotic art objects in their exhibitions or on the streets of London. For Seedbed, part of his January 1972 show at New York’s Sonnabend Gallery, Vito Acconci masturbated under a ramp on which audience members walked while listening to his microphone-amplified responses to their presence. Duet on Ice (1975) found Laurie Anderson on a Bologna street corner teetering on ice skates and playing classical and original compositions on the violin until the blocks of ice encasing the skate’s blades melted. And in 1977 Leslie Labowitz created Record Companies Drag Their Feet, a performance designed to focus attention on the use of exploitative images of women on album covers and in society at large. Many artists of this generation (Scott Burton, Gilbert and George, and Vito Acconci among them) have since moved from making performances to making art objects.

A second generation of Performance artists emerged in the late 1970s. Rejecting the austerity of Conceptual art and its traditionally critical approach to popular culture, the first generation of artists raised on TV moved performance out of the galleries. Performance can now be seen in theaters, clubs—as music or stand-up comedy—on videotape or film. Performance, usually with striking visual elements, often seems synonymous with avant-garde dance, drama, or music. The 1980s has produced numerous “cross-over” talents whose roots can be traced to performance and the visual arts. They include the musicians Laurie Anderson and David Byrne, the actors Ann Magnuson and Spalding Gray, the comics Whoopi Goldberg and Eric Bogosian, the new vaudevillian Bill Irwin, and the opera designer Robert Wilson.

Extracts from 'Artspeak' by Robert Atkins (copyright (©) 1990, 1997 by Robert Atkins) reproduced by permission of Abbeville Press, Inc.